Tuesday, August 16, 2005


Stay at the Table

The Reverend Billy Graham said recently that whenever you bring politics into church, you draw a line down the middle of the congregation. This division takes away from the mission of the church, spreading the word of God.

So when I give in to the temptation to stir up my Sunday School Class, I'm not teaching the Word any more - or am I?

The Bible contains many moral imperatives, teachings, commands and injunctions. Jesus often concerned himself with the powerless and the weak in his community; the widow and the orphan. He Himself was held as a prisoner and convicted of a capital crime.

I believe the moral teaching in the Bible applies to each of us as individuals, but also to us as communities and nations.

Take the Fifth Commandment, for example.

As law-abiding individuals, most people have never killed another human being. But we all belong to the community as well, and collectively we take part in killing all the time. We kill through the state, which acts in our name. (In a modern democratic state, soverignty flows up from the people.) We kill through wars; we kill prisoners held for crimes (such as murder); we kill fleeing suspects. We kill innocents in the pursuit of our enemies; both through the legal process and on the field of battle.

In our country, almost anyone can influence the action of the state. Of course, not everyone who tries will succeed, but the possibility remains. Now, if we as individuals believe that the state violates the fifth commandment, then we must act. The commandment is "Thou shalt not kill." No more, no less. Taken literally, it calls us to act; it is our moral duty to God and ourselves.

The only effective action possible under these circumstances is political protest. For example, camping outside the president's vacation ranch.

A more complex, sophisticated, discerning or least a different understanding of the commandment might not carry with it the need for political action. Or it might require a different kind of action. Moreover, whether or not a specific action will improve matters or make things worse is already the subject of honest disagreement, even among those with shared goals. (Will the killing in Iraq get worse or better if we pull out? Strong arguments exist on both sides.)

In exploring the meaning of the Bible and the commandments, inevitably the requirement for political action will arise sooner or later. As our understanding of Scripture grows, we may feel at one point a compulsion to act, that God wants us to do what we can to stop the killing.

Taken out of context, the fifth commandment is clear and unambiguous. But the context surrounding the commandment includes the listing of several capital crimes.

Of course, a favorite tactic of those who use Scripture to support political agendas is to isolate a sentence or two from the Bible in support of their goals. In these cases, the goals and political predilections come first, and they seek snippets of text after their minds are made up.

A different agenda flows from taking the Bible as a whole; from basing action on the Bible as a complete work, rather than combing it to support prejudices. And yes, the holy book does call us to act. Over and over again, the theme of caring for the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the foreigner repeats itself in the common documents (Old Testament) and the Gospels of Jesus.

We can find texts here and there to support slavery, polygamy, patriarchy, monarchy and so forth. We find commands to stone people to death, to burn dead animals, to refrain from eating certain foods, and so forth. But these contradict the work taken as a whole. The message of the Bible is that ours is a God of love, that He has steadfast love for all of us, and that we need to take care of each other, especially the poor, the weak and downtrodden.

We certainly do not want to draw a line down the middle of the congregation. We know that discussing politics in church will annoy some people and drive others away. But part of the message of the Bible is political. To fully explore the Scripture is to bring political considerations into the room. To deny the call to action is to deny the Word of God.

Sure, it's inconvenient.

Yes, it will aggravate some people. But God does not call us to complacency.

(My own conviction, not endorsed by the church: the message of Jesus is subversive.)

One of the themes at my church is "Stay at the table." The church experience, worship, communion and study are open to all, with no requirements or prerequisites. Membership, contributions, and so forth are not required. We commune freely as we believe God intended, sharing with all who want to join us. And when we inevitably disagree, we stay at the table and share the faith.

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